Extract: To Tell You the Truth by Gilly Macmillan
Lucy Harper has a talent for invention. She was nine years old when her brother vanished in the woods near home. As the only witness, Lucy’s story of that night became crucial to the police investigation. Thirty years on, her brother’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Now Lucy is a bestselling thriller writer. Her talent for invention has given her fame, fortune, and an army of adoring fans. But her husband, Dan, has started keeping secrets of his own, and a sudden change of scene forces Lucy to confront some dark, unwelcome memories. Then Dan goes missing and Lucy’s past and present begin to collide. Did she kill her husband? Would she remember if she did?
Finally, Lucy Harper is going to tell us the truth.
Read on for an extract from To Tell You the Truth by Gilly Macmillan!
To Tell You the Truth
‘Fiction isn’t just what you find in books, it’s the lies we tell ourselves. They can be sturdy lies we use as scaffolding, lies with an abrasive edge to scour our consciences clean, lies that settle over things we’d rather not see like a pure drift of snow. There are many other permutations, but whatever form they take these are lies that we love and loathe.
The only way to avoid creating your own fiction is not to think at all.’
– Lucy Harper
There are the facts, and then there is the truth.
These are the facts:
It is the summer solstice, June 1991.
You’re only nine years old. You’re short for your age. The school nurse has recommended that you lose weight. You struggle to make friends and often feel lonely. You have been bullied. Teachers and your parents frequently encourage you to participate more in group activities, but you prefer the company of your imaginary friend.
We know you spend time that night in Stoke Woods because when you get home, organic debris is found on your clothing, beneath your fingernails and in your hair, and you reek of bonfire smoke.
Home is No.7 Charlotte Close, a modest house identical to all the others on a short cul-de-sac built in the 1960s on a strip of land sold for development by a dairy farmer. It is situated adjacent to Stoke Woods, one and a half miles from the famous Suspension Bridge that links this semi-rural area directly to the city of Bristol.
We know you arrive home at 01:37, 3 hours and 6 minutes before dawn.
As for the rest of what happened, you describe it many times in the days that follow, and you paint, of course, an exceptionally vivid picture, because even at that age you have a facility with words.
You tell it this way:
The stitch in your side feels like a blade, but you daren’t stop or slow as you race through the woods towards home. Trees are gathered as far as you can see with the still menace of a waiting army. Moonlight winks through the canopy and its milky fragments dot and daub the understory. The shifting light shrinks shadows then enlarges them. Perspective tilts.
You drive forward into thicker undergrowth where normally you tread carefully but not tonight. Nettles rake your shins and heaps of leaf mould feel as treacherous as quicksand when your shoes sink beneath their crisped surface. The depths below are damp and grabby.
It’s a little easier when you reach the path, though its surface is uneven and small pebbles scatter beneath your soles. Your nostrils still prickle from the smell of the bonfire.
It’s easy to unlatch the gate to the woods’ car park, as you’ve done it many times before, and from there it’s only a short distance to home.
Each pace you take slaps down hard on the pavement and by the time you reach Charlotte Close, everything hurts. You’re gasping for air. Your chest is heaving. You stop dead at the end of your driveway. All the lights are on in your house.
Your parents are usually neat in silhouette. They are tidy, modest, folk.
Another fact: including you and your little brother, the four of you represent, on paper, the component parts of a very ordinary family.
But when the front door opens, your mother explodes through it, and the light from the hall renders her nightgown translucent so you have the mortifying impression that it’s her naked body you’re watching barrel up the path towards you, and there’s nothing normal about that. There’s nothing normal about anything on this night.
Your mum envelops you in her arms. It feels as if she’s squeezing the last of your breath from you. Into the tangled mess of your hair she says, ‘Thank God,’ and you let yourself sink into her. It feels like falling.
Limp in her tight embrace, you think, please can this moment last forever, can time stop, but of course it can’t, in fact the moment lasts barely a second or two, because as any good mother would, yours raises her head and looks over your shoulder, down the path behind you, into the darkness, where the streetlighting is inadequate, where the moonlight has disappeared behind a torn scrap of cloud, where the only other light is rimming the edges of the garage door of No.4, and every other home is dark, and she says the words you’ve been dreading.
‘But where’s Teddy?’
You can’t tell them about the den.
You just can’t.
Eliza would kill you.
Your mum is clutching you by your upper arms so tightly it hurts. You have the feeling she might shake you. It takes every ounce of your effort to meet her gaze, to widen your eyes, empty them somehow of anything bad she might read in them and say, ‘Isn’t he here?’
I typed ‘The End’ and clicked the ‘save’ button, feeling huge relief that I had finished my novel, and a mixture of elation and exhaustion. But I was also experiencing terrible nerves, much worse than usual, because typing those words meant the consequences of a secret decision that I’d made months ago would have to be faced now.
I write a new book every year and the draft I’d just finished was my fifth novel, a valuable property, hotly anticipated in publishing houses in London, New York and other cities around the world. ‘Valuable property’ were my literary agent’s words, not mine, but he wasn’t wrong. Every day as I wrote, I imagined the staccato tapping of feet beneath desks as publishers awaited the book’s delivery, and this time I felt extra nervous because I knew I was going to send them something they weren’t expecting.
‘Brave,’ Eliza had said once she’d figured out what I’d done.
‘I’m sorry,’ I told her, and I meant it. Her voice had a new and nasty rasp to it, but everything has its price. Under different circumstances, Eliza would be the first to point that out because my girl is pragmatic.
I knew what I had to do next, but it was scary. I had a routine for summoning courage, because it was always hard to find, frequently lost in the scatter and doubt of writing a novel.
Counting to thirty took longer than it should have because I decelerated – I am a master of avoidance – but when I got to zero, I focused like a sniper taking aim. One tap of the finger and the novel was gone, out there, three-hundred and thirty pages on its way to my agent, via email, and it was too late to change anything now.
I waited as long as a minute before refreshing my inbox to see if he had acknowledged receipt. He hadn’t. I deleted emails from clothing retailers offering me new season discounts because I thought they were traitorous messages, reminding me of my internet shopping habit at a moment when something more significant was happening, though I did glimpse a jumpsuit that I thought I might revisit later. It was a buttery colour, ‘hot this spring,’ apparently and ‘easy to accessorise’. Tempting and definitely worth another look, but not now.
I drummed my fingers on my desk. Refreshed again. Nothing. I clicked the back button and checked if they had the jumpsuit in my size. They did. No low stock warning either. Nice. I added one to my shopping basket anyway. Just in case. Went back to email. Refreshed again. Still nothing. Checked my spam folder. Nothing there from Max, but good to see that hot women were available for sex in my city tonight. I deleted all spam, re-refreshed my inbox once more. No change.
I picked up the phone and called. He answered immediately. He has a lovely voice.
‘Lucy! Just a second,’ he said, ‘I’m on the other line. Let me get rid of somebody,’ and he put me on hold. He sounded excited and it made me feel a little fluttery. Not because I’m attracted to him, please don’t get the wrong idea, but because he’s the person I plot and plan my career with, the gatekeeper to my publishers, negotiator-in-chief of book deals, firefighter-in-chief when things go pear-shaped, and recipient of a percentage of my earnings in return.
Max and I need each other, I was his most successful client by far, so it was no surprise that he’d been trying to contain his impatience as my deadline to submit the first draft of this book had approached, delivering pep talks and confidence boosts via phone and email. Whenever I met him, I noticed his nails were bitten to the quick.
He came back on the line after just a moment. ‘I’m all yours.’
‘You. Bloody. Miracle.’ I heard his keyboard clatter as he checked his email. ‘Got it,’ he said. There was a double click as he opened the document. I imagined his eyes on the first page. Seconds passed. They felt like millennia.
Was he reading it? Was he gripped by the first few lines of my story, or had he scanned a few pages ahead and was already feeling the cold wrap of horror, the clutch of disappointment? My nerves were shredded enough that I could catastrophize a three-second pause.
‘I’ll read it immediately,’ Max said. ‘Right away. You must put down the phone and go directly to celebrate. Do not pass go. Treat yourself. Have a bath, open a bottle of something delectable, tell that husband of yours to spoil you. I’ll call you as soon as I’ve finished it.’
I’d never been to Max’s office, but I tried to imagine it sometimes. I thought Max was the type to have a leather chair well stuffed enough to cradle his slender buttocks in comfort and a big desk, its surface large and polished so that it reflected light from the window it faced, which was probably ornate, containing leaded glass perhaps, or framed with elaborate stonework. That’s the sort of person Max seemed to me to be, in spite of his bitten nails: a puppet-master. Only a puppet-master would have a desk like that. I shared that thought with him, once – we must have sunk a few cocktails, or I wouldn’t have been brave enough to say it out loud – and he half-smiled, the expression aligning his asymmetric features.
‘But you’re the one who has the power of life and death,’ he replied. ‘Fictionally speaking,’ he added after a beat.
Beyond the chair, the desk and the architectural features, I also imagined that Max’s office would be messy. Beautiful bones framing disorder was how I saw it and it was a very attractive image, to me.
I could find beauty in surprising things. You have to when violence reverberates through your work, and I imagine every thriller writer will have their own way of handling this.
And by the way, when I finally visited Max’s office in person, I found it to be nothing at all like what I had expected.
After Max, Daniel, my husband, was always the second person to know when a book was finished, but I wanted a few moments to myself before I told him, moments when I didn’t feel watched because I felt like people watched me all the time.
My first novel had been published four years ago and exploded onto the crime fiction scene (my publisher’s words, not mine) and high onto the bestseller list where it stayed for months. And I was introduced to the concept of a book a year—something Max and my editors insisted on as being of paramount importance. Since then people had taken extreme notice of me. They watched what I was writing next, and learned to deduce how quickly I was writing it. They watched me at events. Online. They watched like hawks. They bombarded me with messages on social media. I even had one fan, so far unidentified, who had located the house in which Dan and I rented our flat – a modest building in a graffiti- and coffee-shop-speckled neighbourhood of Bristol – and left gifts on the doorstep.
The presents weren’t really for me, though. The heroine of my novels was Detective Sergeant Eliza Grey. She was based on my childhood imaginary friend. (Write what you know, they say, and I did). People were mad for Eliza and those gifts were for her. They included Eliza’s favourite condiment (cloudberry jam – discovered when she was on secondment to a case in Oslo in Book 2) and her favourite beverage (a caffeinated energy drink). They made me uneasy, I won’t lie, however well-intentioned they were. I asked Dan to get rid of them. They felt like an intrusion into my private life.
It had profoundly shocked me, how suddenly and completely I had become public property after the publication of my first Eliza book. I hadn’t anticipated it, and had I known it would happen, I might never have sent my novel out to literary agents in the first place. The minute I’d signed over the rights to that book, nobody cared that my natural inclination was to curl around my privacy as tightly as a woodlouse.
My moment of alone-ness in the office was disappointing. Instead of basking in a sense of peaceful privacy (as opposed to the fraught loneliness which usually characterised my writing days) I could only see the mess.
I’d shut myself in that room for weeks to get the book finished, working on a crazy schedule of late nights and dawn starts, sometimes a frenzy of typing in the early hours, interspersed with snatches of fractured sleep. My circadian rhythm had been more tarantella than waltz and it showed. Even my printer looked tired, its trays askew, fallen paper on the floor beneath it: a courtesan whose client has just left. She dreams of marrying him. (But I mustn’t personify my printer. What will you think of me?) The floor and coffee table were hardly visible beneath a townscape created from piles of printed drafts and research materials.
‘Should you really dump your stuff on an authentic Persian rug?’ Dan had asked from the doorway a few weeks ago, when the surfaces could no longer contain my belongings and they’d begun to creep onto the floor. I hadn’t thought of it. I was more used to soft furnishings from Ikea, we both were, it’s all we had ever known, but we were at a point where Dan was getting accustomed to the finer things in life and growing into the new wealth my books had brought us more quickly than I was. He had the time; I didn’t. My writing schedule saw to that. I couldn’t look up and see the change.
It wasn’t just the fancy rug that took some getting used to. The cottage we were staying in was also a reflection of what we found ourselves newly able to afford. The weekly rental cost had seemed eye-watering to me, an insult to my natural inclination to be economical and unflashy but Dan had insisted that we needed to be here.
‘You can’t do the final push on this book in the flat,’ he’d said with an irritating air of authority, honed for years on the subjects of writing and the creative process, but recently applied more and more frequently to our domestic life. ‘It’s too claustrophobic. We’ll be on top of each other.’
He was right, and I knew it, but I loved writing in our cosy one-bed flat with its views of the little row of shops opposite, and the smells from the bakery wafting across the street every morning. And I felt superstitious. I’d written all my books in that flat. What if a change of routine affected my writing? What if it signalled that I had got above myself? Everyone knows that tall poppies are the first to be decapitated.
But even as those anxieties raised a swarm of butterflies in my stomach, I knew I had to take Dan’s wishes into consideration carefully because he worked full time for me, now, and it made the issue of who had the power in our household a delicate one. I tried to think of how to frame my objections to renting the cottage in a way that wouldn’t upset him, but I got tongue-tied. Words flow for me when I’m writing, but they can stick in my throat like a hairball when I have to speak up for myself.
Dan softened his tone to deliver his winning line: ‘We can easily afford it, I’ve looked at the numbers, and imagine being in the countryside, by the ocean, it’ll be so good for us.’
I was susceptible to emotional blackmail, and to the potential of romance. Writing is a lonely job. I also had to trust him on the money, because he managed my finances for me. Trying to grapple with taxes and columns of numbers plunged me into panic.
I agreed to rent the place and watched him click ‘Book Now’ but as he did, I had the strange feeling that life had somehow just shifted a little bit beyond my control.
There’s something else I should mention, in the spirit of full disclosure.
On paper, ours was a nice, mutually beneficial, privileged arrangement where I would write a thriller each year and continue to rake in the money, and Dan would provide all the support I needed, but there was a large and rather revolting fly stuck in the ointment, its legs twitching occasionally.
The fly was this: being my assistant wasn’t the life Dan had dreamed of. He’d wanted to be a bestselling author too.
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